The rise of sight, the fall of sound

Aim for the Ace (1973)

Perhaps we don’t often think on the settings in which people watched older TV anime. But quite basic facets of TV’s nature have changed through the decades, in ways which might’ve changed anime in turn.

Technological and economic limits kept most televisions quite small for most of the twentieth century. The bulk and weight of cathode ray tubes limited televisions to about forty-five inches, and we built relatively few at that size. Many televisions stayed much smaller.

This small size gave sound more sway. Television relied more on sound effects, music and dialogue than it does today.

In early serial TV anime, in particular, sound vitally supplemented animation. Several accounts of Astro Boy and other early sixties anime describe staff swiftly grasping that sound effects made very limited animation seem markedly less limited.

Noises for blows and fast movements enhanced action, while crowd murmur and ambient sounds immersed viewers in backgrounds which stayed wholly still or simply panned across the screen. But sound effects needn’t represent sounds within a TV show’s own world—I avoid writing diegetic, because I want a human-readable post—and staff also did much with what we might call the sound of drama itself.

Aim for the Ace

I’m currently enjoying the first Aim for the Ace adaptation, which really goes in for drama sounds, as you’ll see if you play this video:

This clip matches characters’ panned reactions with sounds, very effectively. It goes further, too: two sounds replace the content of the phone conversation. This replacement in turn boosts the drama, we don’t know exactly how Otowa slanders Oka to Ochoufujin.

Perhaps Osamu Dezaki’s anime give us the sound of drama particularly often, but I’m fairly sure that, much as with the deft wrangling of still images, this use of sound by Dezaki and his fellow staff amplified a pre-existing technique.

~ ~ ~

Things are not so now. When I go—as I do, once a week—to the other flat that’s part of my pandemic bubble, we watch anime on a TV that stretches forty-something inches and doesn’t seem outlandish. It’s a big TV, yes, but what would once have been the limits of CRT technology now seems fairly unremarkable in a normal living room.

The coming of larger TVs lets us stuff our vision with screen without going to a cinema (remember those?). I don’t have a huge TV of my own, but when I watch anime at home I do so on a large computer monitor, not all so very far from my face.

The shift to bigger screens promoted sight and demoted sound. Demotion isn’t discharge: sound effects remain vital to most anime, and I suspect we often undervalue them. But I must receive sound effects differently watching Aim for the Ace today, on a large screen, than most people did in the seventies.

After I first posted this, InvisibleEvie pointed out to me (on the MSB Discord) that, of course, the speakers used in or with televisions have also changed dramatically. Seventies sound effects must actually sound different when heard from a modern-day sound bar or through a twenty-first-century headset.

So far, what I’ve outlined holds for live-action TV, too. I point it out in relation to anime since this blog discusses anime.

Raideen (1975–6) on in the background in Z-Mind (1999)

For anime specifically, a second change also happened: the growth of fannish viewers and fannish distribution routes within anime’s potential audience.

Consider the scene from Z-Mind above. Z-Mind takes place in the seventies. Here, Brave Raideen plays on a small television while conversation distracts the family member who is, in theory, watching it. This looks like episode 26 or 27 of Raideen, which puts Z-Mind’s plot in the autumn of 1975—if, that is, the characters in Z-Mind aren’t watching a re-broadcast of Raideen. (I’m very grateful to R042, who kindly tracked this down for me.)

In its first few decades, mass-broadcast anime arrived in busy households, perhaps in smaller spaces than some readers (North American ones) might imagine, and in spaces which were often noisy or conversational too.

With OVAs and then late-night television, anime developed pipelines to obsessives. Think of the various contrasts between Aim for the Ace and Gunbuster! Obsessives more often spend resources gathering the best audio-visual equipment. They also more often watch alone or in company only with other obsessives.

Before the advent of large flat screen TVs, then, anime had already begun cultivating an audience who would watch in lonelier and more focused ways, for whom sound would hold importance, yes, but perhaps less importance.

Maruko tries to distract her sister in the first episode of Chibi Maruko-chan (1990, but set in the seventies)

We can use many other stories to think about mass broadcast anime through time. This particular story, as I’ve told it here, carves TV anime up in a crude binary. I think, though, that this story has its uses, and might prompt further thoughts. When we watch older TV anime now, we probably watch with unexpected concentration on unforeseen screens.

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